The director Chor Yuen is probably today best known for the sumptuous fantasy wuxia films he crafted while under contract to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio during the seventies and early eighties. Indeed, titles like Killer Clans, The Magic Blade and Clans of Intrigue, marked as they are by Chor’s unique ability to meld gauzy, haunted romanticism and state-of-the-art martial arts action within an immediately recognizable and alluringly narcotic visual style, present themselves as signature works, the result of a perfect marriage of director and genre. This makes it all the more surprising that these films were, to some extent, a lucrative tangent occurring well into a long directorial career stretching back to the late fifties–one encompassing equally prolific and accomplished work in the areas of social realism and romantic drama.
As I said way back when in our first review of a Chor Yuen film, and likely in every subsequent review of a Chor Yuen film, discovering his body of work was one of the best cinematic things to happen to me in years. Since that day I first brought home the then newly released DVD of Killer Clans, I’ve made it a point to purchase any of the wuxia films he directed for the Shaw Brothers Studio. Needless to say, the films are not as surprising as they were during those heady first few dates, but I can say we’ve definitely settled down into a very comfortable and happy relationship. His films still prove immensely entertaining, and the more familiar I become with it, the more I notice the differences that occur from one film to the next within what I reckon we should refer to as Yuen’s Martial World.
Bat Without Wings, for example, takes the now familiar Chor Yuen wuxia trappings and injects an element of the horror film into them. Yuen’s style has always seemed somewhat informed by a combination of horror films and old mystery serials, packed as they are with sinister cults, trap doors, secret identities, and hidden chambers. Added to that was generally a splash of colored lightning courtesy of Mario Bava’s early work in films like Hercules in the Haunted World. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Bat Without Wings to find itself inhabited by all that, with the addition of a headless ghost, requisite “spooky green supernatural” lightning, lots of fog, and a crazed masked villain. It’s almost as if Chor Yuen got tired of films based on Jin Yong novels and instead turned to Edgar Wallace for his source material.
The story is relatively straight-forward…for a Chor Yuen film. For years, the Martial World was plagued by the notorious Bat Without Wings, a heinous villain who hid his identity behind a Gene Simmons mask. When the Bat’s villainous streak of murder, theft, rape, kidnap, and plundering finally got to be too much, the greatest heroes of the Martial World banded together to kill him. All but two of the heroes died in the process, but in the end, they finally managed to kill the Bat Without Wings…or did they?
Years later, beautiful young Lei-feng (Ouyang Pei Shan) is the head of a security escort that is attacked by a man who appears to be the Bat Without Wings, returned from the grave. The security detail is slaughtered, and Lei-feng herself is kidnapped to endure a considerably worse fate at the hands of the Bat. Only the woman’s maid (Liu Lai Ling) survives to report that, to the astonishment of everyone, the attack seems to have been perpetrated by the Bat Without Wings.
Lei-feng’s father (Wong Yung) is hesitant to believe the Bat Without Wings is really behind the crime. But when his daughter’s ghost, followed closely by her dismembered body, shows up on the doorstep, he joins forces with wandering swordsman Xiao (Derek Yee, handsome and bland as always) and Lei-feng’s fiancee (Ku Kuan Chung) to solve the mystery and avenge the murder.
From that point on, the movie hits you with the usual cast of characters “who are not what they appear to be,” and while plenty confusing and complex for a newcomer, anyone accustomed to Chor Yuen films will find this one of the director’s slightly less tangled webs of mystery and intrigue. It’s not a classic in the same way that the director’s work with Ti Lung was, but it’s still a deliriously fun wuxia outing that showcases some of the weirdness the Shaw Bros. studio was so fond of in it’s waning days. The best sequences are those infused by horror. The appearance of Lei-feng’s ghost and discovery of her body is suitably chilling. The eventual reveal of the Bat Without Wing’s underground lair looks like a set borrowed from an old Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe film. And the sequence in which our trio of heroes wind their way through an increasingly gigantic labyrinth of secret passages is a lot of fun.
The Bat Without Wings himself is a pretty classic Edgar Wallace villain (for more info on that, check out any of our krimi film reviews), right down to the sinister lair, secret identity, and “but I thought he was dead” conceit. The truth about the identity of the Bat is not that incredible a mystery, but as is often the case, Chor Yuen makes the journey so much fun that you don’t really mind if you’ve already figured out the destination. A secret treasure and copious employment of esoteric poisons only further the similarities between this movie and the krimi of the 1960s.
A few things work less well than others. There’s a bit where the three heroes investigate a mysterious prison island surrounded by bamboo and rigged with traps. It’s pretty cool for the most part, but when the “this whole island will explode” trap is triggered, it ends up being a much of sparklers firing off while Derek Yee and company try to look mildly terrified. Additionally, part of the reason the Bat Without Wings has that name is because he can fly. Unfortunately, this is realized by having the actor howl and waggle his tongue while flapping his cape up and down as he is hoisted around on some wires. It’s one o the points at which this film falls prey to the goofball (though charming) campiness of other late-era Shaw productions.
Finally, the movie is sorely lacking in compelling heroes. The three heroes are shallow sketches, at best, and none of the actors have the talent and charisma of Ti Lung to help flesh out a one-dimensional character. Derek Yee is nice to look at, but I don’t think anyone ever accused him of being an engaging performer. Even with three guys sharing the leads, they get lost in the shadow of the Bat flapping around and hollerin’ like a monkey.
But still, it’s a pretty fun movie. Not up to the standards of Yuen’s films from the 70s, but a whole lot of fun regardless. It has pretty much everything you want from such a film, plus a little more. If you’re a fan of krimi, I think this is an interesting grafting of the style onto the wuxia genre. And if you like this movie but don’t know who Edgar Wallace is, it might be worth your while to check out a few of the classics of the krimi sub-genre.
It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks. It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a spider. But more about that later.
As the films opens, a number of the Five Venom Clan’s chiefs — including the Snake Chief, Liu Shen, played by Lo Lieh — are beseeching its leader to allow that the Five Venom Spider be brought out of mothballs. It seems that, since the weapon was taken out of play, the clan has fallen somewhat in the eyes of its peers, which is not surprising. You see, the clan has sort of made the Five Venom Spider its whole “thing”. This is evident not just from the clan’s name, but also from the fact that both their palatial lair and their garments are covered with spider and web motifs. So the whole situation is similar to if the United States’ flag, rather than being covered with stars and stripes, was instead covered with atomic symbols and mushroom clouds, and then we tried to present ourselves as a model of restraint. In that case I think even the most lily-livered country would be justified in snickering at us behind its hand a little bit.
Of course, the Five Venoms leader, being a man of principle, refuses to back down. This turns out to be of no matter, however, because, as we will soon learn, Liu Shen is screwing the leader’s wife (Angela Yu Chien), and is secretly plotting with her to obtain the spider for himself so that he can rule the Martial World. Now, I’m unclear whether, in the universe of these wuxia stories, the Martial World comprises the entire world, or is just a discreet part of the larger world. I mean, is there still a Europe and an Africa, for instance, with just a large chunk of Asia delineated as the Martial World? If this is the case, the greater, non-martial world has nothing to fear from the Martial World, because its inhabitants are way too busy warring amongst themselves for dominance to bother with anything going on beyond its borders. This is what they’re all about, you see.
Coming at this early stage, Web of Death is something of a transitional film in Chor’s wuxia series. It lacks the rough, exploitation movie edge of his earlier Killer Clans — which I think was the result of Chor being influenced by the types of films that were coming out of Japan at the time — and, to a much lesser extent, The Magic Blade, while at the same time being not quite as mannered and dreamlike as his next feature, the more distinctly Chinese-feeling Clans of Intrigue. That latter film would set the tone for all of Chor’s wuxia adaptations to come, one that would be crystallized by the time of films like Murder Plot, and would approach the point of self parody with the ridiculously convoluted and stylized-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber movies. While, like those later films, Web is not without its elements of romance and tragedy, those elements are not as heady and enveloping as they would become, nor is the world that the director creates on screen so completely sealed off from reality. Yes, the set-bound exteriors with the conspicuously phony-looking painted-on moon and clouds are still there, but not at the expense of a certain amount of actual location and back lot shooting.
This is not to say that all of those thing that would become hallmarks of Chor’s swordplay films are in short supply in Web of Death. To the contrary, I think that fans of his films will be more than satisfied with the number of beautiful and atmospheric sets, Bava-esque green and red lighting schemes, frequent and often spectacularly staged fight scenes, and the abundance of exotic weaponry on display. After all, in this last regard alone, there is not only the Five Venom Spider itself, but also the centipede-shaped sword wielded by the Centipede Clan’s chief, the Venom clan’s array of poisonous darts and vapors, Lo Lieh’s snake-shaped bazooka (for lack of a better word), and an entire clan of fighters equipped with flaming metal gloves. To my mind, the most interestingly conceived of these death-dealers is the Venom Clan’s “Poisonous Nether Flower”, which is capable of turning a person’s actual blood into a weapon against the spider — although once that blood is released, it will not stop flowing until its owner is completely drained.
Added to this is the fact that Web of Death compensates for the comparative lack of its successors’ swoony romanticism with a surfeit of something fairly unique to the series: the type of cheap “B” horror movie thrills seemingly derived more from 1950s American drive-in fare than from the Chinese folklore that martial arts films typically look to for their spook-show elements. This is again, of course, largely due to our friend the Five Venom Spider. Both the whirlwind of crude special effects he stands at the center of and the rigors that cast and crew alike put themselves through to convince us that he’s scary make this whole enterprise seem like spiritual kin to the work of shlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon. As a result, the movie is lent a sort of ragged, three-legged-dog charm that’s far from what Chor’s other more stately and genteel offerings typically convey.
Another thing that sets Web of Death apart from most of the other films in Chor’s wuxia catalog is the fact it is one of a very few of those films not to star either Ti Lung or Derek Yee as its hero. Instead we here get Shaw mainstay Yueh Hua, who also had a prominent role in Killer Clans that same year. Probably Hua’s earliest claim to fame was starring opposite Cheng Pei Pei in King Hu’s game-changing martial arts classic Come Drink With Me. He would go on to become a prolific Shaw player, appearing in dozens of the studio’s productions. And while Web of Death marked the last time he would take top billing in one of Chor’s wuxia movies, he would take substantial supporting roles in a number of those that followed, including Clans of Intrigue with Ti Lung and Death Duel with Yee. While an adequate performer, Hua lacks the charisma of Ti Lung — as well as the striking, teen idol good looks of Derek Yee — and, because of that, largely fails to register in Web of Death. Of course, to give the actor his due, it takes a star with an extraordinarily forceful presence to stand out in one of these movies, given the small army of characters they have to compete with for attention, as well as the distractions provided by the relentless, rapid-fire convolutions of the plot.
In any case, Yueh Hua’s low-impact performance has the effect of handing the film over to his leading lady, an actress who would prove to be a constant and legitimizing presence in Chor’s swordplay epics, Ching Li. Ching’s character here is one of the female archetypes of wuxia cinema: the “headstrong” girl who, despite her noble upbringing, insists on being part of the action — all the better to put in practice her formidable martial arts skills. In this case she is Susu, the daughter of the Five Venom clan’s leader, who enacts her rebellion by way of a ruse that is also archetypal in wuxia cinema. She masquerades as a man, albeit in a manner that makes it more than obvious to the viewing audience that she is anything but, while everyone else on screen, despite this evidence, takes it as a given. Granted, Susu’s guise as a grubby male beggar, while not convincing at all, is a lot more so than the typical wuxia movie version of cross-dressing, which simply involves a glamorous actress in full makeup wearing pants and being referred to as “lad” and “sir” by everyone she encounters. It also helps that these sequences are contrasted with those in which Susu appears in her undisguised form, as a radiant beauty made even more so by Chor’s employment of all the old school glamour-imbuing tricks of his trade, swathed in a series of diaphanous gowns. However, it is not just by virtue of her enchanting presence that the actress ends up taking charge of Web of Death, but also as a result of the fact that, at the film’s close, it is her character’s actions, more than those of any other in the film, that prove to be the most heroic.
First in her beggar drag, and then as herself, Ching’s Susu ends up assisting Yueh Hua’s swordsman character, Fei, in his mission to find the truth regarding the Five Venom Spider. Liu Shen and the master’s wife, in their quest for the weapon, have spread a rumor that the Five Venom Clan is again contemplating its use, hoping that, by doing so, they will incite members of the rival clans to try to track it down for themselves, thus doing the hard work of divining the weapon’s hiding place for them. It is for this very reason that Fei, the eldest student at the Shaolin Temple, has been sent forth by his master. Over the course of the film, his journey will have him continually crossing swords with those rival clans — both in dreamlike, fog-enshrouded marshes and cavernous, surrealistically-lit tombs fraught with elaborate booby traps — while fending off all of the depredations that Lo Lieh at his cackling bad guy best can visit upon him. At some point, Fei’s younger brother, Yingjie (Wong Chung), also joins in the search, joined by a young female disciple, Quixin (Lilly Li Li-Li), who makes no secret of her affection for Fei. As might be expected, all of the rivalries, jealousies and complex betrayals that we’ve come to count on from the denizens of Chor’s Martial World will come into play to make sure that the road to Web of Death’s conclusion will be far from a straight and narrow one.
If this all sounds complicated, it is. But to be truthful, Web of Death‘s narrative is actually one of the more transparent ones as far as Chor’s wuxia movies go. If you pay attention, it’s relatively easy to keep track of who’s who, who’s doing what to whom, and why they’re doing it, which, in the case of, say, the aforementioned Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, would be a truly Sisyphean task. Of course, because this is a Chor Yuen film we’re talking about, you can also just choose to abandon any efforts to follow what’s going on and simply immerse yourself in all the gorgeous art direction and well-staged action. Honestly, you’ll probably end up enjoying it just as much. It’s a win-win, really.
In Web of Death‘s final act, Lo Lieh and his minions finally get their hands on the film’s much ballyhooed doomsday device, putting it to its ultimate test at a summit held by their rivals at the headquarters of the Wudang clan. And, as I alluded to before, it is here, in the film’s conclusion, that Web of Death runs up against its biggest flaw. You see, the typical Chor Yuen wuxia movie rewards you for the effort of keeping track of its many characters by giving you a climax in which you get to see almost all of those characters fighting each other in a wild and protracted sword battle, complete with lots of crazy acrobatics and people spitting up candy-apple-red blood. Here, we indeed get to see all of the characters brought together, but instead of fighting, they’re all cringing and clawing at their faces in terror as a little spider crawls across the floor toward them. And keep in mind that this is the Martial World we’re talking about, and that all of these characters’ lives are defined by both their constant proclaiming and demonstration of their fighting prowess — which, furthermore, we have paid more than ample witness to over the previous eighty-or-so minutes.
Granted, all of this is amusing for its unintentional absurdity, but Chor Yuen isn’t Ed Wood. That kind of campy hilarity isn’t normally what I turn to his films for. As a result, I expect that this sequence might make the film a little bit of a disappointment for anyone coming to it with expectations based on the director’s other work. For those coming to it unburdened by expectations, however, it’s actually kind of awesome, filled with cheap gore effects, a spider roaring like an elephant, and lots of people shooting lightning bolts out of their hands via crude, drawn-on animation.
So, ultimately, The Web of Death is one of those martial arts films in Chor Yuen’s catalog that is inessential, but nonetheless enjoyable. It provides a nice break for completists like myself, who have had to suffer through far worse in their mission to watch every single one of the man’s films. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his movies, I think it’s well worth checking out for those who have already made their way through all of his top tier works. Especially those who felt that those works didn’t bare a strong enough resemblance to Earth vs. The Spider.
Release Year: 1976 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Yueh Hua, Ching Li, Lo Lieh, Ku Feng, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Wong Chun, Lilly Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Kong Yeung, Chan Shen, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Heo Li-Jen, Lee Sau-Kei, Wang Han-Chen, Norman Chu Siu-Keung | Writer: Ni Kuang | Director: Chor Yuen | Action Directors: Tong Gai, Yuen Cheung-Yan | Cinematographer: Wong Chit | Music: Frankie Chan Fan-Kei | Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw
When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
Ti Lung is on hand to reprise the role of Chu Liu-hsiang, the cool-as-ice, sexy-as-all-get-out swordsman who can beat any man, woo any woman, and lives in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by three hot female assistants. Once again, it’d be remiss of me as both an espionage and martial arts film fan if I didn’t note just how similar Chu is to American super-spy and all-around Renaissance man of mystery, Derek Flint. Both of them are tended to by a bevy of beauties who not only look good, but can also kick your ass or get taken hostage if the need ever arises. Both of them live in high-tech (for their respective times) ultra-cool bachelor pads. And of course, they can both out-fight, out-think, and just plain out-cool any villain who gets in their way.
Also returning for another dose of wu xia action is Chu’s mysterious and not altogether righteous sidekick, the killer for hire Li Tien-hung, played once again by the steely-eyed and grim Ling Yun. Our two heroes, or rather our hero and that really pissed off guy who hangs out with him and stabs people, are once again drawn into a winding, twisting plot when they investigate a gathering of martial arts clans and find everyone dead save for one lone man in white who has no memory.
They soon meet up with a kungfu couple in search of a potion that will cure the wife’s terminal illness, and they also discover that someone has put a price on the head of Chu Liu-hsiang. All roads lead to a mysterious masked man known only as The Bat, who lives on a secret island in a cave-palace filled with elaborate and outlandish booby traps. The Bat is in the business of granting wishes – some noble, most diabolical. Chu and Li must first brave a ship full of “people who are not what they seem to be” where they will make a variety of enemies and allies. Then they must traverse the truly mind-blowing caverns of Bat Island in search of the man who seems to be the root of much of the evil plaguing that ever-plagued-with-trouble Martial World.
The sequence on the ship feels like it’s Agatha Christie meets Shaw Bros. swordsman action. For the first half of the film, we meet one character after another who is not what they seem, and then in many cases after that character’s secret is revealed, we find out later that they’re still not what they seem and have a whole new set of secrets to reveal that will once again realign them in the plot. It’s classic Chor Yuen – Lung Ku storytelling, and once again, while it might not always make sense, and while it sometimes seems to be twisting the plot just for the hell of it, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable ride that is much more interesting than just sitting down to a movie starring Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Wang Lung-wei where you have to guess which character will eventually be exposed as evil, given the fact that Wang Lung-wei has eventually been exposed as evil (or simply started out evil and stayed that way) in roughly 99% of the movies in which he ever starred. For all the convolution that gets thrown onto the screen, Legend of the Bat truly keeps you guessing as to the motives of most of the characters involved. Only Chu himself is a certainty. We know he’s a stand-up guy. Everyone else, even his sidekick Li, keep their motives up in the air for the first half of the film. It’s fun stuff.
By the time we arrive on Bat Island, most of the loyalties of the main characters have been sorted out. There are still plenty of ancillary characters to show up during the finale and throw things for a loop, but at least we know who our core group of heroes will be as they begin to challenge the labyrinth of mazes and pitfalls that comprise the island’s defenses. It’s here that Chor Yuen really goes all-out with the stylized set design and turns the surrealism up to eleven. The caverns are awash in Mario Bava-esque multi-colored lighting and mists, with rocks and waters glowing green, purple, blue, red, and yellow. It all looks very much like some of the sets from Hercules in the Haunted World. The Bat’s henchmen wear outlandish “wild man” uniforms, and before they manage to reach the inner sanctum of his compound, our heroes must escape from a cage suspended over a pit of bubbling acid, traverse a raging pool of fire, and overcome a room full of icy glaciers all while fending off spear-wielding goons.
I’ve always wondered where villains go to hire construction crews to build their fabulously ornate and intricately booby-trapped lairs. Can you get union workers to build a lake of fire, or do you have to sneak off and hire the Mexican guys hanging out on the corner looking for work? Is there a firm that specializes in converting networks of caves and volcanoes into lavishly-lit secret compounds? And who sews the zany costumes for all the villain’s henchmen? Where can you buy silver foil jumpsuits, or in the case of this movie weird wildman duds, by the gross? Legend of the Bat finally gives us a glimpse, albeit superficially, into the logistics of constructing ridiculously complex evil lairs when the original architect of the Bat Island caves shows up for part of the action.
He is, of course, a brilliant man who let his fascination with fashioning fire pits and acid pools blind him to the fact that the strange masked man who placed the order might end up using them for evil purposes. I guess guys who build hollowed-out volcano bases and caves of death are sort of like all those guys on the Manhattan Project who were so happy to be working on crazy scientific and mathematical quandaries that they didn’t realize until too late that they’d just created the most devastating weapon in the history of the world and would thus have to come up with some sort of prophetic and deep thing to say upon witnessing the fiery fruition of their labors. By my reckoning, if we hadn’t kept Oppenheimer and the others busy with inventing the atom bomb, they would have probably just gone off and outfitted Hitler’s bunker with an acid pit and one of those rooms where spikes pop out of the wall and close in on you.
Today, would be designers of evil lairs spend most of their time drawing little dungeon maps so elaborate that they have to use that scientific graph paper instead of the regular stuff. Imagine how much weirder the conflict in Afghanistan would have been if the first time we got reports from inside one of Osama bin-Laden’s cave hide-outs, the soldiers had said, “Well, the lake of fire with the giant snake in it was rough, but we were able to throw Geraldo Rivera in to distract the monster. Still, it was rough going once we got to room that filled with molten lead and the tunnel that was illuminated by strobe lights and lava lamps.” That was always bin-Laden’s big problem. He spent all his money on that Al Quaeda gymboree we saw those guys practicing on whenever they replayed that “Al Quaeda training video,” apparently concerned that international terrorists may have to negotiate monkey bars and track hurdles when performing their evil deeds. As far as evil masterminds go, his cave lairs were a disgrace. Compare them to our own secret underground city where we plan to send our leaders in the event of an emergency. Now that’s an underground lair fit for a Bond villain.
As far as lairs go, The Bat’s pad is pretty sharp. Of course, in a Chor Yuen film almost everyone lives in luxurious digs. Even peasant dwellings look surreal and beautiful. This movie gives us not one, but three boat-palaces. You have Chu’s place, which is quite nice, and you have the transport ship, which looks like it was inspired by all the intrigue on board the Orient Express of old. And then you have the yacht that comes by to pick up our heroes after a big battle, and that one’s just as ornate as Chu’s place. None of them reminded me in the least of my grandpa’s bass boat, and at the time I always considered that to be one hell of a vehicle. The Bat’s lair not only has all those booby trapped chambers and places where the architect seemed to be able to manipulate the powers of geology itself to form ice mountains and rivers, but he has a cool misty throne room full of wild lighting, various treasure chambers, and other alcoves and nooks where strange and beautiful things are placed.
As with Clans of Intrigue, every scene takes place on a Shaw Bros. studio set, allowing Chor Yuen total control of every aspect of the appearance of his film. And once again he drapes each frame in flower blossoms, flowing silks, lattice work, secret chambers, and grand banquet halls. Every inch is meticulously designed and detailed in the extreme. At no point does Yuen skimp on a set simply because we’re not there for very long. He’s never happy to go with the simpler, faster sets that many directors settled for. Even in the most inconsequential of places, Yuen goes to extravagant lengths to create overwhelming eye-candy.
But you can’t build a movie on eye candy sets and a cool villain’s lair alone. As with the first film, Legend of the Bat is carried by the complexity of the plot and the charisma of the leads. Ti Lung is grand as always, though in all honestly, he almost seems to be along for the ride this time around, content to simply hang around while all the other characters indulge in machinations and Machiavellian schemes. When the time is right, he steps up and doles out some sword-swinging justice, but since his character is the only one free of hidden agendas, he is in some ways the least interesting of the bunch. Clans of Intrigue had the same phenomenon – and I hesitate to call it a “problem” since the actions of all the other characters are so thoroughly engrossing. Chu’s job is to cruise along, smirk, and do some killing when the time is right.
The rest of the characters are a wild bunch. Once again, we have the filial daughter out to save or avenge her father. We have the kungfu couple with noble hearts driven to commit evil deeds by the desperation of their situation. We have the unkempt guy who could be a vile thief or a noble hero. There’s the mute guy, the amnesiac, a bunch of kungfu masters and clan leaders with dubious intentions, the mysterious Bat, and a glorious gang of butt-naked female assassins. With all those people running around and flying through the air, it’s no surprise that our hero Chu is satisfied with just sitting back and watching it all unfold, allowing himself to get lost in all the insanity. We also have Derek Yee on hand, the good-looking younger brother of Ti Lung’s frequent co-star David Chiang. Yee would go on to a lead role in Chor Yuen’s Death Duel a few years later, as well as a starring role in the phenomenally bizarre Buddha’s Palm, beore settling down to become a director of some acclaim with movies like Viva Erotica and C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri to his name. Yueh Wah returns from the first film as a different character, this time as one half of the doomed kungfu couple opposite Ching Li, also returning as a different character.
Unlike Clans of Intrigue, messing around with gender roles isn’t a key ingredient. There are plenty of interesting female characters, but none as complex or engrossing as Betty Tei Pi from the first film. Ching Li is on hand to play the “pure” female hero (one of two, actually), though she’s less active and entertaining than her more fight-active character Black Pearl from the first film. Still, she’s one of my favorite Shaw leading ladies, so it’s always a pleasure to see her in action. With Chor Yuen, we usually get multiple female leads, at least one “ice queen” villain and one “pure” heroine. The ice queen, of course, is the one most likely to shimmy out of her robes and give the fellers a show, while the pure heroine, conversely, keeps her clothes on and fights sometimes for justice, but usually out of a filial obligation to right some injustice done to her family. While Legend of the Bat has its fair share of women with questionable motives, it lacks any real, strong female antagonist. The female protagonists, on the other hand, are in abundance but not quite as complex or disturbed as heroines from other films. Not a bad thing, necessarily. I know Chu Liu-hsiang was probably tired of female heroes who spent the first half of the film trying to kill him (they only try to kill him a few times), and the women on hand are hardly poorly realized characters. The lack of any dynamically complex female characters on par with Betty Tei Pi’s tragic queen of the martial underworld, Princess Yin-Chi, does keep this one just a notch below Clans of Intrigue in terms of characterization.
The story, however, is just as confusing and twisted as the first film. Characters pop up and disappear with frightening frequency, a carry-over trait from many works of Chinese literature where we not only got dozens of main characters, but also had many of them come and go with little or no warning. Ultimately, it’s a more realistic portrayal of how people drift in and out of events and lives, often without fanfare or resolution to whatever conflicts involved them. On the minus side of things, however, you need a flow chart to keep track of who showed up when and jumped out of which window only to show up again at the very end with some grand revelation. The question is never who has something to hand or who will unveil an aforementioned grand revelation – everyone but Chu has at least a couple, even the seemingly minor characters. The question is always what the revelation will be, and just how zany is it? While the mysteries at the core of Lung Ku’s stories – which are essentially detective novels dressed up in a swordsman’s flowing robes – may lack focus, they certainly don’t lack for entertainment value. Legend of the Bat is, like its predecessor a wonderfully written, if not totally believable, mystery-adventure. But then, are you going to worry about it being illogical for Character A to turn out Way C in a movie where old guys can chop their own arm off and then carry on a conversation as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to them?
The martial arts action, which is after all what draws many people to these movies, is on par with that from Chor Yuen’s other accomplished films, though as with those, it is also not the central focus of the movie. We are, once again, set in the Martial World, which is always plagues with tumult. Some reviewers have commented that the concept of the Martial World, this bizarre intangible association of boxers and swordsmen, heroes and rakehells, is what keeps the films of Chor Yuen more inaccessible to Western audiences than those of Chang Cheh, where most of the plots involved revolting against evil government officials or avenging someone’s death – stuff to which everyone can relate, or at least stuff everyone can understand. The Martial World, on the other hand, with all its secret societies and esoteric kungfu styles, is a concept more difficult to grasp.
I don’t entirely agree. While it’s true that there’s nothing quite like the concept of the Martial World with its blend of intrigue and supernatural powers, it’s also not entirely unlike the equally esoteric secret societies that comprise the Mafia underworld. And Mafia films are, needless to say, hugely popular and very well understood in the West. As with the Martial World, the underworld is full of sects and clans and families fighting each other for dominion over things that entirely understandable to the outside world, such as extortion turf and linen service rights. Like the heroes and villains of the Martial World, the underworld is full of tricky characters, double-crosses, and violent battles. The concept of the Martial World, then, is not so foreign as some might make it seem. The only real difference is that there was always a very low probability than Don Corlione would leap up from his leather chair, fly across the room, and blast some low level Mafioso with energy beams flowing from his palms. But he did have a pretty keen lair.
Chor Yuen’s film usually focus on swordsman action, drawing as they do their inspiration from the classic wu xia films of the 1960s. The martial arts on display in Legend of the Bat are a wild and wonderful mixture of sword fights and kungfu clashes with plenty of supernatural abilities on display. People can punch through walls, jump over buildings, fight off dozens of attackers, and chop off their arm without giving it a second thought. Chu can walk without making any noise, and there’s a blind character who can see and fight in the dark as well as his sight-gifted adversaries can in the light. There’s nothing entirely over-the-top. No one shoots laser beams out of their eyes, and no one can really fly, but if you’re looking for authentic, realistic martial arts action, a Chor Yuen film as about the last place you should be snooping around. His action pieces are as artfully crafted and highly stylized as his sets, and they are more things of grace and beauty than knock-down, drag-out acts of pugilism. Even with that said, the final duel is pretty brutal, and there are some wonderful, no-nonsense sword fights, particularly the one between Ti Lung and a whole gang of masked assailants.
If you liked Clans of Intrigue, or if you like any of Chor Yuen’s mid/late 1970s swordsman films, then you’re not going to be disappointed by Legend of the Bat. Byzantine plots, swordfights galore, beautiful women, handsome men, and exquisite sets make for another mind-blowing martial arts mystery. Ti Lung is wonderful, and he’s the least interesting thing about the movie. It’s a worthy follow-up to the first film, and it’s a thoroughly pleasing slice of clever martial arts mayhem.
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
Chor Yuen came to Shaw Brothers with deep roots in the Cantonese language cinema of Hong Kong. His father, Cheung Wood-Yau, had been a popular actor in Cantonese film, which makes it no surprise that Chor, as a young student, turned to performing in films himself when he needed to make ends meet. Being a quick learner, and well aware that he lacked the qualifications of a successful leading man, Chor turned his attention to work behind the camera, and soon went from being an assistant director to directing his own films. During this period in his career, while working for the studio Kong Ngee Co. — as well as through an independent company that he established with his wife, the actress Nam Hung — Chor specialized in social realist dramas and romances, mostly small-scale films that focused on characters and relationships rather than action. But he also broke new ground with his 1965 hit The Black Rose, one of Hong Kong’s first contemporary action films to incorporate modish elements inspired by the Bond films and TV series like The Avengers.
As the sixties neared their close, the Cantonese language film industry was in steep decline. Given that its product was mostly limited to a local audience, it simply couldn’t compete with the comparatively lush production values seen in the Mandarin productions coming out of Cathay and Shaw. In addition to that, the new style of action films being created over at Shaw — specifically the violent, fast-paced and decidedly male-driven films of Chang Cheh — had come to be favored by audiences who’d grown weary of the strictly female-centered films that had previously dominated Hong Kong’s screens, and which were the bread and butter of the Cantonese industry. Given that the figure of the female warrior is even today still something of a kinky novelty in Western pop culture, this is something that’s hard for me to get my head around, but it seems that HK audiences of the sixties were basically saying, “Aw Jeez, not another heroic female swordsman, for Christ’s sake! How about a guy for a change?” And so, out went the chaste and chivalrous ladies of the sword played by Connie Chan Po Chu and Josephine Siao, and in came the shirtless, glistening torsos of Wang Yu, Ti Lung and David Chiang, all ready to display their gory contents in response to an opponent’s sufficiently savage blows.
Chor, rightly or wrongly, always considered himself above all a commercial director, one who survived by following the prevailing trends. And so, despite having a no doubt deep affection for the industry that raised him, he read the writing on the wall and headed over to the Mandarin language studios. His first stop was Cathay, where, in 1970, he would make his first swordplay film, Cold Blade. Then, later that same year, he went on to begin his long and prolific relationship with the Shaws. His first effort for that studio, Duel For Gold, was another swordplay drama, but one that made a distinctly gritty departure from the displays of honor and nobility that had characterized wuxia cinema up to that point, possessed instead of a cynical, morally ambiguous tone that was more in keeping with the new cinema being made in the States by the young mavericks of the new Hollywood. The film impressed Shaw Brothers boss Run Run Shaw — as it also did, reportedly, Chang Cheh — and went on to modest box office success. After next ushering Cantonese film superstar Connie Chan Po Chu both into Mandarin cinema and out of her film career with The Lizard, Chor delivered a more resounding hit with his Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, a film very much in the vein of the “one part art, one part exploitation” type of female-driven period revenge films that were coming out of Japan at the time.
Despite having tasted some success with his early forays into Mandarin cinema, Chor had not forgotten his roots, and when it came time, in 1973, to adapt the popular stage play The House of 72 Tenants for the screen, he insisted, over Run Run Shaw’s objections, that it be shot in its original Cantonese. The film went on to become one of the years’ biggest hits in Hong Kong, out-grossing Enter The Dragon, and in the process performed the seemingly impossible task of reviving Cantonese cinema at a time when no production in the language had been made for over a year. Now an acclaimed director with a major hit on his hands, Chor was in a position to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to do, apparently, was spend the next two years filming a series of tearjerkers adapted from popular television dramas that would all prove to be miserable failures at the box office.
After capping off this string of duds with nine months of inactivity, Chor was desperate to get his career back on track again. Deciding to try his hand at swordplay films again, he began work on a series of screenplays based on the popular wuxia novels of Ku Long. Ku Long, like Chor, was known for spicing up his works within the traditional genre by incorporating contemporary elements, and so his tales of swordsman heroes in the vaguely medieval setting of the mythical Martial World were marked by James Bond-inspired gimmickry and noirish notes derived from contemporary detective thrillers. He was also very prolific, churning out more than sixty novels before drinking himself to death at the age of 48, which gave Chor plenty to work with. Despite this, however, Run Run Shaw was unimpressed with Chor’s efforts. Fortunately, an even more prolific scribe, Shaw Brothers’ screenwriting dynamo Ni Kuang, steered Chor toward a more recent book of Ku Long’s, the 1974 novel Meteor, Butterfly and Sword, which the author had based on The Godfather. Chor turned the novel into Killer Clans, a massive hit that resulted in Shaw Brothers putting him on permanent Ku Long duty for the next several years.
By the time of making Murder Plot — the film I’m addressing here — in 1979, Chor Yuen had already filmed a full thirteen adaptations of Ku Long’s novels. As a result, his approach to these films had become what some might uncharitably describe as “formulaic” (Chor himself has as much as said so, saying in an interview that “Without the maple leaves and dry ice, I’d be lost”). To me, however, that phrase is misleading, because it suggests something routine — and Chor’s approach, while consistent from film to film, is something uniquely his own, utterly distinct from what anyone — apart from his imitators — was doing at the time. So let’s just settle for saying that Chor’s style — at least in terms of his wuxia films — had “crystallized” by this point, which indeed it had. At the same time, Chor had yet to weary of his subject matter to the point that he would by the early eighties, at which point some signs of laxness began to creep into the work, along with some grasping attempts to mix things up with new gimmicks (for instance, an increased — and overmatched — reliance on special effects in response to the success of Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain), a trend which wasn’t helped by the reduced budgets he had to work with as a result of the Shaw studio’s declining fortunes during that decade. All of these factors, then, make Murder Plot an excellent example of that style at its peak, when it was at its most refined and time-tested.
Trends being what they are, audience interest in Chang Cheh’s testosterone-fueled punch-fests had begun to wane by the late seventies, and, as such, Chor Yuen, through his Ku Long films, came to emerge as sort of an anti-Chang Cheh. Where Chang’s films could be technically sloppy and homely in appearance, Chor’s were meticulous, even fussy in their detail, and exhibited an unerring dedication to the presentation of visual beauty in every shot. Where Chang’s action highlighted power, speed and violence, Chor’s, while equally frenetic, showed an emphasis on elegance and grace that blended suitably within the dreamlike settings he created. Chor, perhaps in allegiance to his background in Canto cinema, also to some extent reasserted the primacy of the female in his films by having richly drawn female characters fight against and alongside his male heroes on equal footing – an aspect of HK film that Chang had effectively tried to banish via his arguably misogynist filmmaking ethos. In fact, the mere presence of dimensional characters — as well as the aspiration to emotional resonance beyond simply the clanging reverberations of vengeance and bloodlust — put Chor’s martial arts films at odds with most of Chang’s work, and would be a hallmark of his style throughout the Ku Long films.
Another aspect of Chor’s style in regard to these films is a result of the source material, as well as the manner in which that material collided with the restrictions that Chor had to work within. Among the defining characteristics of Ku Long’s wuxia novels are that they are generally lengthy (The Untold History of the Fighting World, the 1965 book on which Murder Plot is based, comprises 44 chapters), dense with back-story, filled with an astonishing number of characters, and feature plots rich in complex intrigues, frequent switching back-and-forth of allegiances, and layered identities. To a film, each of Chor’s adaptations shows the strain of having to compress these narratives to fit within the standard Shaw ninety minute format — while, of course, at the same time having to include the requisite heavy amount of martial arts action, which in Murder Plot‘s case translates into a rollicking, intricately-staged swordfight at least every five minutes. As a result, these films — despite the languid exterior that Chor’s fog-drenched, and unnaturally-lit art direction presents — appear to be flying by in fast motion, with the actors spitting huge chunks of expository dialog at each other with tongue twisting alacrity, and scenes careening into one another as if in a rush to the finish line. In the case of Murder Plot, I was taken by surprise when it became clear that the film’s events were meant to be taking place over the course of several months, because their presentation made it seem as if they could just as likely have taken place in an afternoon.
While such hurried pacing provides the films with a crackling energy, it also in some instances makes it tempting to throw up your hands and give up on following their plots altogether. It’s even advisable in some cases, given that some necessary connective tissue was occasionally stripped away in the course of the narrative downsizing. And even so, these films still offer more than enough to enjoy. With their beautiful sets, intoxicating atmospherics, engaging characters, eccentric gimmickry, and exquisitely staged action set pieces, they are a standout example of the type of cinema that one can immerse oneself in without having to resort to the brute mechanics of comprehension. That said, in the case of Murder Plot, the effort is worth making, because among Chor’s wuxia films it is actually one of the more linear and transparent in terms of story — a fact that, once you’ve watched it, might scare you off of ever dipping into any of the others.
As I alluded to earlier, Chor liked to infuse his wuxia films — just as Ku Long did with his novels — with elements gleaned from contemporary pop culture, and among the sources that he drew from on more than one occasion were the Spaghetti Westerns. The Magic Blade in particular owes a special debt to Sergio Leone’s Dollar films, in that it presented Ti Lung as basically a Martial World incarnation of The Man With No Name, replicated right down to his ragged poncho. Murder Plot‘s opening pays tribute to this source in equal measure, showing us a shadowy, black clad figure, hat brim pulled low over his face, leading his horse into a seemingly deserted town under the cover of night, a corpse draped across the animal’s back. As he nears a large manor, the figure stops at a wall on which a number of wanted posters are displayed, tearing down the one that pertains to his recent prey.
Soon we will learn that this man is the hero Shen Lang, and the fact that he is portrayed by Shaw superstar David Chiang sets Murder Plot apart from all other of Chor’s wuxia films. Of course, Chiang had an at least tangential connection to the other films, thanks to Ti Lung, his frequent co-star in Chang Cheh’s films, and his younger half-brother Derek Yee both being frequently cast as their leads, but Murder Plot was to be the only one that he starred in himself.
Having had the requisite brief scuffle with the guards outside Man Yi Mansion (judging from these movies, the Martial World custom is for everyone, upon first meeting, to immediately engage in a sword fight, often for no apparent reason and regardless of the parties’ allegiances), Shen Lang is ushered inside, where we learn that he has been summoned, along with the six top heroes of the province’s main schools, by the master Li Chang Chun. Li Chang Chun addresses the group, speaking of a battle that occurred fifteen years previous in which 900 of the Martial World’s top heroes died fighting for possession of an apocryphal manual containing the secrets to an allegedly invincible fighting style. The rumor of that manual, it turns out, was spread with the very intention of provoking such a battle (a battle that, by the way, is described in the novel in harrowing detail, but here dispensed with in a couple of rushed lines of dialog), and as a result, the perpetrator, through eliminating a large number of his competitors in one go, has come that much closer to dominance over the territory. That perpetrator, according to Li Chang Chun, appears to be a mysterious figure known as The Happy King, who, in the years since the battle, has displayed knowledge of secret techniques previously known only to certain of the battle’s vanquished combatants.
Soon after this revelation is presented, a young woman barges into the meeting and, as is the custom, engages in a brief sword fight with all present except Shen Lang. It turns out that she is Shen Lang’s fiancé, Zhu Qi Qi, the daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Shen Lang, we learn, at some earlier point left Zhu Qi Qi behind, saying only that he had to go on a mission to “find someone” and that he would be gone for several years, and Zhu Qi Qi, having grown impatient for his return, decided to come after him. Shen Lang will later, with an amusing combination of weariness and resignation, describe Zhu Qi Qi by saying that she is “unruly, headstrong, and likes to create trouble”. But in addition to conforming in some respects to the stereotype of the pampered, tantrum-prone rich girl, Zhu Qi Qi is also a brave and accomplished sword-wielding hero in her own right. As portrayed by Chor’s favorite leading lady, Ching Li, she is also Murder Plot‘s most endearing character. You get the sense that she’s exactly the kind of woman that a guy like Shen Lang, who comes off as a bit smug and humorless, needs in his life, and you can’t help liking and respecting him all the more for loving her. Their relationship, despite a lot of playful bickering, is clearly one of mutual respect, and with the two of them sharing equally in pursuing the mystery at the film’s center, Murder Plot ends up playing out as sort of a martial arts version of The Thin Man, a conceit which ends up being one of the films most appealing aspects.
It’s true that many of Chor’s wuxia films are infused with a sense of melancholy, a reflection of the tragic web that the Martial World’s heroes, honor bound to an eternal struggle for dominance, find themselves trapped in. Probably the most stark examples of this are the Sentimental Swordsman films, in which Ti Lung portrays a consumptive, alcoholic hero unable to escape his gloomy past. On the other end of the spectrum are films like Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, which feature the worldly, swashbuckling hero Chu Liu-hsiang — also played by Ti Lung — that, despite having some dark, supernatural undercurrents, play out more as rollicking adventures yarns. Murder Plot fits in comfortably alongside these last mentioned films, and serves as a fine example of this strain in Chor’s work. While other of his attempts to meld elements of detective story and swordplay drama were less successful, here he does so to great effect, while at the same time providing an enveloping atmosphere of mystery and romance for those elements to play out in. From interviews with Chor you get the clear impression that he never considered himself anything more than an entertainer, and — whether you agree with that or not — in that sense he is here at the top of his game.
Having introduced its main characters and central conflict in record time, Murder Plot proceeds to really kick its action into gear when Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, the master Li Chang Chun and the six heroes travel to Yi City. They have heard reports that the Happy King’s ill-gotten treasure is stashed there, and upon arriving are shocked to find the streets clogged with a procession of coffins. They are told that a rumor had spread of a fabulous treasure housed in a nearby tomb, and that the many swordsmen who rushed to plunder it were killed by way of poison painted on the tomb’s door. Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, and the six heroes go to the tomb and, immediately upon entering, see a number of their entourage killed by a series of booby traps hidden within. Shen Lang pushes further into the crypt, where he encounters and fights with Jin Wu Wang (Wong Chung), who is the Happy King’s treasurer by title, but, of course, also a master swordsman. Though they are apparently on opposite sides, the two express a mutual respect, and forge a temporary truce when they find themselves, along with Zhu Qi Qi, momentarily trapped inside the crypt. Upon emerging they find that the six heroes are nowhere to be seen and, since they were the only ones known to be in the tomb with them at the time, are accused of foul play by Li Chang Chun. Shen Lang asks that Li Chang Chun grant him a month’s time to prove his innocence, and the master agrees.
Later that night, Zhu Qi Qi trails a procession of ghostly, white-garbed women to the cavernous lair of the mysterious Madam Wang, where she finds the six heroes suspended in some kind of comatose state. This is the result of the exotic secret weapon — and every one of these movies has at least one — wielded by Madam Wang’s son Lian Hua, the “Enticing Ice Arrow”, which is a finger-sized shard of ice that Lian Hua tosses like a dart. (Alert viewers will note that Goo Goon-Chung, the actor playing Lian Hua, looks to be about the same age as Chen Ping, the actress playing his mom, the result of Shaw Brothers apparently not having any actresses over thirty-five contracted to them.) After briefly mixing it up with Lian Hua, Zhu Qi Qi escapes without having found out exactly why Madam Wang wanted to kidnap the six heroes in the first place. Shortly thereafter, she comes upon an old crone (played again by an actress obviously still in her prime) who, for reasons I was never really able to sort out, drugs her with poisoned smoke, ties her up, and throws her into a coffin with another bound young women named Bai Fei Fei (played by Chor regular, Candice Yu On-On, who is simultaneously super cute and kind of weird looking). Luckily, Zhu Qi Qi has around this same time had a chance encounter with Panda, the sooty, rag-wearing chief of the Beggars Clan (as played by Danny Lee, forever beloved by Teleport City readers for his starring roles in such singular Shaw Brothers ventures as Inframan, The Mighty Peking Man and The Oily Maniac). Panda took the opportunity to nick Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant — sort of a Martial World ATM card enabling him access to her family’s wealth — and when, later, Shen Lang and Jin Wu Wang catch him with it, he leads them to where Zhu Qi Qi is imprisoned.
After yet another frenetic scuffle, Panda, Shen Lang and Jin Wu Wang make peace and cooperate to free Zhu Qi Qi and Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei tells them that she was sold to the old woman after being taken from outside the territory, and that she is now far from home as a result. Shen Lang tells her that they will escort her back, as they are going that way in their pursuit of the Happy King, a pledge which leaves the jealous Zhu Qi Qi audibly displeased. Panda, having become immediately smitten with Bai Fei Fei, also offers to come along. And at this point, with Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi traveling the road on the way to meet with a yet unseen ruler of mythical power, gathering up forces from among a ragtag band of characters with disparate motives within a phantasmagorical setting, Murder Plot really started to remind me of The Wizard of Oz. Danny Li, in particular, with his combination of bravery, affable goofiness and canine loyalty struck me as an all-in-one stand-in for all three of Dorothy’s companions. And while Zhu Qi Qi is definitely no Dorothy, Bai Fei Fei, as a wide eyed innocent trying to find her way back to a home that circumstances beyond her control have taken her away from, fits the bill quite well.
After Jin Wu Wang takes his leave of the crew — giving Shen Lang the standard “next time we meet, it may not be as friends” speech — Zhu Qi Qi leads the rest to Madame Wang’s lair, where another fast-paced fight is engaged with Madame Wang and Lian Hua. Madame Wang remains mysterious about her motives, but does allow that she kidnapped the heroes in order to draw Shen Lang to her, though without saying for what purpose. Before being routed, Lian Hua manages to make off with Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant and, after freeing the heroes, the group heads off toward Fen Yan City, the home of Zhu Qi Qi’s family, to intercept him before he can drain her family’s fortune. Once there, Zhu Qi Qi, acting on her own, tracks down Lian Hua and, after a furious fight, manages to temporarily paralyze him by striking one of his “pressure points” (another practice that you will get very used to seeing after watching a few of these movies). Despite this, Zhu Qi Qi gets a dressing down from Shen Lang, because he had asked her to stay with Bai Fei Fei at the family mansion and protect her. In a fit of jealous pique, Zhu Qi Qi takes off on her own with the frozen Lian Hua in tow, telling her brother in law that she is doing this so that Shen Lang will “know he should have me in his heart”. This leaves Shen Lang, Panda and Bai Fei Fei to trail after her, trying to guess at her ultimate destination.
After a roadside ambush by the Happy King’s wine master and his acrobatic, jug-balancing bodyguards, a scene follows in which Bai Fei Fei, apparently feeling responsible for driving a wedge between Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi, tells a stricken Panda that she will be following her own course from this point on. By this time, Chor was shooting his films exclusively on interior sets, even going to the extreme of sometimes using miniatures for establishing shots to avoid the chance of anything conspicuously natural interfering with the fully enclosed world that he was creating. It was in this manner that he provided an environment in which the dream-like logic of his stories could play out unconstrained by any reference points to the “real world”. It also allowed him to, in painterly fashion, use his settings to express mood – a practice of which Bai Fei Fei’s farewell scene is a stirring example. The scene plays out more as one idealized in memory than an actual occurrence, with the impossibly deep autumnal hues of the rural surroundings rendered gilt-edged by the dying light bleeding through the gauzy veil of mist above. It would be incredibly sad even if Danny Lee and Candice Yu-On On were to do absolutely nothing, because the landscape they inhabit itself is an expression of heartbreak.
After Bai Fei Fei’s departure, Shen Lang and Panda finally catch up with Zhu Qi Qi at Shanghai Gate. Unfortunately, once they have reunited, Lian Hua — who has been subjected to the humiliation of being dressed up as Zhu Qi Qi’s old granny — escapes from his paralysis and overpowers the three. Upon finding themselves back at Madam Wang’s lair, they are finally filled in on the Madam’s true motives. It seems she is the Happy King’s ex-wife, and that she wants Shen Lang to protect the king from the other Martial Heroes who are after his head, so that she alone can enjoy revenge against him for some unspecified wrong. To insure Shen Lang’s compliance, Lian Hua renders Panda and Zhu Qi Qi comatose with his Enticing Ice Arrows, saying that he will not provide the antidote until Shen Lang has completed his mission. Having no other choice, and at Madam Wang’s direction, Shen Lang tracks the Happy King to a gambling house called the Happy Forest — and he’s Lo Lieh! A very James Bond-inspired scene follows in which Shen Lang and the King size one another up over the gaming table, after which David Chiang gets to show off his empty-handed kung fu skills in a sequence where Shen Lang defends the King against a gang of attackers who storm the casino.
After this, Shen Lang makes the case for the King to hire him on as a bodyguard, and soon finds himself within the walls of the palace. There he is surprised to find that the concubine the King is on the eve of marrying is none other than Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei will then be the first of many of Murder Plot‘s characters to reveal that she is not what she had previously represented herself to be. In fact, the final fifteen minutes of the movie — in classic Chor Yuen/Ku Long fashion –render false much of what I’ve recounted so far. But for me to reveal more than that would spoil the fun — or the frustration, depending on how you tend to react to having a laboriously-woven narrative rug pulled out from under you at the last moment. In either case, what really matters is that Murder Plot puts paid to its real obligations by seeing out it’s final moments with a lavish sword and kung fu battle — choreographed by Chor’s regular collaborator, the great Tong Gai — that sees all of the characters whirling and flipping across the screen at a pace that makes the rest of the movie seem stately by comparison. If you have lost the thread of the plot by this point, chances are that you won’t end up caring. And if you do, a painless remedy is at hand, because Murder Plot is so crammed with nuance and detail that a second viewing can only yield further enjoyment.
I imagine that it’s pretty obvious that I love Murder Plot. It looks beautiful, the actors and the characters that they play are incredibly appealing, the action is wonderfully staged and literally non-stop, and the atmosphere is so rich with romance and intrigue that it’s enough to send you into a ninety minute swoon. Still, it’s far from my favorite of Chor Yuen’s wuxia films, which should give you some idea of just how deep the damage goes with me when it comes to these movies. The world that Chor creates in them is, simply put, one that I never tire of visiting, and I’m happy that his prolific output has provided me with ample opportunities to do so.
So, upon consideration, maybe I do agree that, with time, Chor Yuen’s Ku Long films became somewhat routine and predictable. And by that I mean that they are routinely awesome and predictably rewarding, much like a visit to a beloved old friend – which, last I checked, was not a bad thing at all.
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
Rough times for the industry means rough times for fans as well. Here in the United States, folks were hit with the double whammy of there being very few films worth seeing, and the few that were worth seeing were often snapped up by domestic distributors like Disney and Miramax, who would then do one of two things. They’d either stick the film in their vaults and forget about it, effectively eliminating it from circulation in the United States, or they’d do a horrendous dub chop, cut the film to ribbons, and mix in a cheap hip-hop soundtrack, being certain to include the song “Kungfu Fighting” by Carl Douglas in any and every Asian film possible. I really wonder at this point if the people who decide to put that song in these movies think they’re the first to do it. Did they miss the last ten releases from their same company using the same song? Will the hilarity never be exhausted?
Of course, die-hard fans could always shop overseas and find most (but not all) titles available online in their original language and uncut, widescreen format. It was still a lot of hassle just to see a subpar film like Legend of Zu. Luckily, nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of decent new films, the void was filled by the past.
When Celestial Entertainment announced they’d inked a deal to release everything in the vaults of the Shaw Brothers studio onto DVD, complete with digital remastering, subtitles, and extras, many people had a “believe it when I see it” attitude. After all, such a deal seemed far too good to be true. The Shaw Brothers, of course, were one of the premiere studios in the history not just of Hong Kong cinema, but of global cinema as a whole. Along with Cathay Studios, the Shaw Brothers defined Hong Kong cinema and helped create what many consider the Golden Age during the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, after their initial release into theaters, the vast majority of Shaw Brothers films disappeared, locked away in secret vaults and jealously guarded like some crazy long-haired drunken monk guards the manual for his secret style of Wild Toad Kungfu. A few titles snuck out in badly cropped formats with those subtitles where only about four words are visible and the rest run off the sides and bottom of the screen. More made it into the bootleg realm, also in inferior formats and often dubbed and edited. And even those that did make it out were almost exclusively the kungfu films of Chang Cheh and Liu chia-liang – fine films, but a tiny smattering of what lie hidden somewhere out there near Clearwater Bay.
In December of 2002, however, dreams became a reality, and the first batch of remastered Shaw Brothers films hit the DVD market. Suddenly, the dearth of quality new productions seemed less important. As long as Celestial kept a steady stream of old classics coming our way, it didn’t really matter that new films offered nothing worth taking note of. There were more than enough unearthed classics to keep fans busy for years, and with such an aggressive release schedule (they do have over 700 films to get through, after all), there’d be little down time between waves of rediscovered treasure.
Initially, I’d been excited primarily about the idea of getting my hands on beautiful copies of all my old favorites. The first day, however, my focus shifted dramatically, and I fond myself far more excited about the prospect of delving into the unknown, the films and directors and stars I’d never seen before. And there are plenty of them. From weepy melodrama to pop-art go-go musical extravaganzas, I was in for one treat after another. And one of the yummiest treats was discovering, at long last, the films of Chu Yuan, aka Chor Yuen.
Chor Yuen is probably most recognizable as the evil Mr. Koo from Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Before he was whacking Jacking with an umbrella and causing him to fall off speeding double-decker busses, Chor Yuen made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished and artistic martial arts directors in movie history. Where most kungfu films were happy to point the camera at a couple guys and let them wave their arms in each other’s faces, Yuen was determined to maintain and build upon the more stylish, lyrical, and poetic artistic approach of early masters like King Hu while throwing in plenty of visual flare that seems to have been derived from ground-breaking Italian productions like those of Mario Bava: lots of mist, splashes of brilliant color and surreal lighting, and unique use of the camera as something more than just a thing to point at people.
Equally detailed are the sets employed in each film. While cheaper, less ambitious films just plopped the hero and villain down on top of that grassy hill or the rock quarry looking thing where 90% of all kungfu fights in the 1970s took place, Yuen placed his films amid lavish sets that became as essential to the film as the characters themselves and help lend to them a dreamlike elegance missing from so many of the more straight-forward films of the era. Each scene looks like a painting, filled with swirling mists, swaying cherry blossoms, and flowing silks. Yuen’s “villain lairs” were often more outlandish and inventive than anything seen even in the wildest dreams of the old Batman series. They were caves full of spooky lighting and boiling pits of fire, or temples filled with sparkling gems and booby traps.
The final piece of Yuen’s puzzle comes in the form of fabulously labyrinthine plots where every single person has something to hide, nothing is what it seems, and everyone will be crossed and double crossed as often as possible. Part fever dream, part detective novel, the stories behind Yuen’s films were often the handiwork of famed martial arts novelist Lung Ku. Martial arts adventure novels in China have always been astoundingly complex, filled with hundreds of characters and sometimes dozens of main characters. Most famous among the classic tales is The Water Margin, also known as Heroes of the Marsh and 108 Heroes. These novels have served as the basis for scores of movies including new wave classics like Swordsman (written by Louis Cha) and Golden Age gems like Brave Archer (also from the pen of Lung Ku). Despite the era and despite the author, all the film’s share the traditional love of complex, sometimes confounding plots.
Previously, deciphering the events in one of these movies was a Herculean chore. The only versions available were often cropped on the edges so that fully half the action fell off the screen, and subtitles went with the picture. For any given line of dialogue, you were lucky to get three or four words that didn’t drop off the bottom or the side edges of the screen. Thus, if any character said something more complex than “Yes,” or “Kill him!” you were in trouble. Since films of this nature offered so many twists and turns and so many characters with secret identities and agendas, keeping track of the plot was well nigh impossible. Luckily, the DVD releases of these films rectify the situation, providing viewers with the full scope of action and subtitles that are actually placed in a position where you can see them. From time to time, even this doesn’t make some of the more outrageous plot twists any more comprehensible, but at least we’re in a better position to enjoy what’s going on. And what better place than one of Chor Yuen’s coolest films to begin?
Ti Lung stars in Clans of Intrigue as the accomplished swordsman Chu Liu-hsiang. His heroics and reputation have earned him a life of luxury which he spends in his decked-out palatial boat where he is attended to by three drop-dead sexy female assistants, not unlike Derek Flint or L. Ron Hubbard. His idyllic life is upset when a maiden from the Palace of Magic Water (played by Bruce Lee film veteran Nora Miao) arrives to accuse him of murder. Seems that someone has assassinated the leaders of three of the great martial arts clans, and the word around that ever-tumultuous Martial World is that Chu is the man responsible for these heinous deeds.
Determined to clear his name and unmask the true killer, Chu sets off on a investigative quest that bring shim into contact with a variety of clans and killers, all of whom seem to have some strange secret that connects them to the murders. Along the way, he first fights and then befriends a swordsman for hire (played by the impressive Ling Yun) and the daughter of one of the slain clan leaders. He’s also badgered at every turn by a mysterious masked killer in red and a variety of icily beautiful hit women from the Palace of Magic Water, who are lead by Betty Pei Ti. And did I mention the mysterious monk or the subplot about orphaned ninjas?
Clans of Intrigue, like most Chor Yuen – Lung Ku collaborations, keeps the viewer guessing primarily by providing a twist at every single opportunity. While it’s not always the most logical turn of events, it certainly keeps you watching and paying attention. Unlike the more brutal kungfu dramas of Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen emphasizes story and characters over kungfu action. Ti Lung is more than up for the challenge of carrying a character-driven story, even though his character is in many ways the least complex. Ti Lung was always one of the best all-around performers at the Shaw Bros studios. He was handsome, majestic, and equally adept at drama, comedy, and deadly kungfu action – all of which he gets to display here. The character of Chu Liu-hsiang is rarely serious or at a loss for words, and his reaction to everything seems to be to smirk, make a joke, then kick some ass. It’s nice to see him in a role unlike hi usual Chang Cheh roles, where he would invariably have to take off his shirt and get stabbed in the belly.
His polar opposite is the mysterious swordsman in black played by the enigmatic Ling Yun. With motives less pure than those of his compatriot, Yuen’s grim killer-for-hire is the straight-man of the duo. The rest of the cast round out the film nicely. Nora Miao is as beautiful as she is talented, and Chor Yuen always gives his female characters something interesting to do – another of the many things that set him apart from his contemporary Chang Cheh and links him more to past masters such as King Hu (who, incidentally, directed Yuen Hua alongside Cheng Pei-pei in the ground-breaking Come Drink With Me) or another of Shaw’s up and coming directors, Liu Chia-liang — who made a hero out of Kara Hui Ying-hung when very few heroic female characters existed in the Chang Cheh dominated kungfu films. After the trendiness of wu xia (fantastic swordsman) films wore off and was replaced in the 1970s by grittier, more brutal, and less lyrical kungfu films, female heroines tended to disappear from Shaw Bros martial arts epics, thanks primarily to Chang Cheh’s domination of the market. He was much more interested in male bonding than in women, and his films reflect his own macho tastes. Contrary to reports that Shaw Bros. producer Mona Fong was the driving force behind eliminating women from heroic leading roles (out of jealousy, as the story goes), it seems the blame lies far more on Chang Cheh. It wasn’t until Chor Yuen and Liu Chia-liang became the dominant forces behind the studio’s martial arts films that we saw a return of the valiant female fighter.
As the heroic Black Pearl, Shaw Bros stalwart Ching Li is simply wonderful. With her “best friend’s cute little sister” good looks and quality acting chops honed in dramatic roles like the schizophrenic young woman in When Clouds Roll By, Ching Li was a real force to be reckoned with. Chor Yuen was certainly fond of her, and he used the talented young actress in both Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat as well as Killer Clans, Magic Blade, and the director’s comedic blockbuster House of 72 Tenants among others. She also has the distinction of being one of the only female stars to every carve a decent character out of a Chang Cheh film, that of the doomed woman in Blood Brothers. She also got to do some ass-kicking in Chang’s early Ti Lung – David Chiang “spaghetti western” kungfu film Anonymous Heroes. Her mixture of true acting ability and athletic prowess made her one of the most versatile and enjoyable to watch female stars in Shaw Bros film history — quite a feat when youn consider that puts her int he company of women like dramatic actress Linda Lin Dai, Ivy Ling Po, Lily Li, and kungfu superstar Hui Ying-hung.
The venerable Yueh Hua stars as Ti Lung’s friend and ally, Monk Wu Hua. As with nearly everyone else in the film, he is far more than he appears to be, and his role in the story keeps you guessing as to his true motives and history. Yueh Hua plays the character with a wonderful subtlety that imminently displays why he was considered one of the Shaw Bros. most treasured performers. Few and far between are the films with such an impressive ensemble cast of men and women who are actually allowed by the story to live up to their potential as both characters and actors.
Another of Chor Yuen’s trademarks was his eye for beauty and his tendency to add a little flesh and spice to his films. A naked female rear here, the glimpse of a breast there did a lot to titillate viewers even though it was shot with the same striking artistry as the rest of his film. Clans of Intrigue is no exception to the rule, and Yuen serves up some decidedly adult fare with the lesbian overtones between Nora Miao and Betty Pei Ti. In fact, there are versions of the film that contain a steamy kiss between the two women, though that particular instance is missing from the official cut of the film as was presumably only added for international distribution. Its absence, and the absence of a flash of frontal nudity during a bathing scene involving Betty Pei Ti, have lead some to claim erroneously that Celestial – the company who has remastered and released the film onto DVD – censored the print. This is not the case. The moments were never officially part of the film as it played in theaters, though those of you in desperate need of seeing Bruce Lee’s favorite female co-star kissing another woman can still get an eyeful thanks to the DVD’s stills gallery. Neither scene is vital to the movie of course, nor has any real bearing on the action that isn’t communicated through other scenes. It’s just, well, you know us and our fondness for nudity.
That’s not the only place the film plays with gender, however. In a series of twists that foreshadow the gender-bending antics of Hong Kong new wave films like Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II and Swordsman III: The East is Red, as well as Ronnie Yu’s Bride With White Hair, we get not only the cult of sword-swinging lesbians but also a character who is able to change genders at will and wreak all sorts of havoc as a result. And while it’s not exactly part of the gender bending subtext, the shots of a paralyzed Ti Lung sitting in a flowery white swing above a misty perfumed pond look like something right out of your better gay nightclub floor shows. Not that toying with gender was anything new. Kungfu films have always enjoyed doing things like taking beauties such as Cheng Pei-pei and Shang Kuan Lung Feng and dressing them up as men. Unconvincing men, but men never the less. And Hong Kong entertainment in general has a fondness for men in drag that remained unsurpassed until the advent of the Spanish-language cable network Galavision.
All of Yuen’s work in these adaptations of Kung Lu novels, and indeed much of the director’s work in general, is infused with a more feminine quality than the films of other directors in the genre, even other directors like Liu Chia-liang who appreciated female heroines. Part of this comes from intricate delicacy of Yuen’s set-pieces. They are, as stated previously, absolutely gorgeous. Part of it comes from the fact that his female characters are allowed to be strong and feminine where most female kungfu stars were simply women acting the same as the men. There’s nothign wrong with that, of course, but the fact that Yuen protrays his women as women, with their own unique character traits, makes for deeper, more interesting figures.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Chor Yuen is also known for upping the anty when it came to exposing female flesh. Not that nudity was anything new to the kungfu film, and in fact in comparison to many films fromt he same era, Chor Yuen’s films are relatively tame in the amount of nudity they show. They only seem saucier because the director handles it in a very adept way. It’s not the amount of flesh that is revealed, but the way Chor Yuen reveals it. There is nothing vulgar or obvious about his handling of the saucier bits. They’re quite poetic, and because of that, quite erotic. It’s that classy handling of the material that makes it seem much naughtier than it really is. It’s because he makes what little nudity there is really count, instead of just giving us a parade of gratuitous boob shots during rape scenes. It’s, well, hot. As such, even his coy use of female nudity seems artistic and feminine in its touch. And that’s the touch that probably explains why, despite his fondness of nubile young nudes, Chor Yuen has garnered so many female film admirers who are turned off by all the chest-beating maleness of Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen’s heroines can be naked without ever seeming debased, and his heroes can read poetry and give each other flowers without seeming wimpy. Like everything else surrounding the director’s work, it’s really quite refreshing and very unique.
As an action film, Clans of Intrigue doesn’t disappoint, though it is heavier on discussion than some people might want. Chor Yuen’s work is the missing link between the classic wu xia films of the 1960s like Come Drink With Me and Temple of the Red Lotus, and the wildly over-the-top new wave swordsman films of the 1980s such as the Swordsman trilogy and Zu. Although the relative obscurity of Chor Yuen’s body of work has caused it to be overlooked when drawing the map of Hong Kong film trends, its availability on DVD will hopefully allow the director to take his rightful place as one of the most innovative and influential directors in action film history. Without his work, it’s likely the much-talked-about flying swordsman films of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t have come to pass, or at the very least, would have looked remarkably different. Directors like Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark owe a tremendous debt to Chor Yuen. That said, Clans of Intrigue is not the kungfu blow-out as delivered by guys like Chang Cheh. While it certainly doesn’t skimp on the sword fighting and jumping over high castle walls, it’s not the center of attention. That position belongs to the esoteric plot.
But when the action does heat up, it’s frequently fast-paced and impressive. The final duel between our trio of heroes and the characters eventually unmasked as the villains of the piece is phenomenal. For starters, you’ve never seen so many double-crosses in such a short amount of time. Moreover, one of the characters, upon having their hand chopped off, angrily picks up said hand and flings it with such force that impales another character. You just can’t get much tougher than that, unless you’re the guy in Story of Rikki who uses his own intestines to strangle his opponent.
The Chor Yuen films have been the definite highlight of the recent Shaw Bros. DVD releases, and Clans of Intrigue is a sumptuous example of why. It is extravagantly filmed and directed, sporting eye-popping artistry and visual flare, lavish sets, mind-numbingly complex plotting, beautiful women, heroic men, and sword fights galore. While the team of Lung Ku, Chor Yuen and Ti Lung would top themselves the same year with the exquisite Magic Blade, Clans of Intrigue proved vastly popular – and rightly so. It’s a tremendously impressive film, and it spawned a sequel called Legend of the Bat, reuniting Ti Lung and Ling Yun in another tale of intrigue and deception. If you are looking for a good introduction to one of the most astounding and unjustly unrecognized talents in Hong Kong film history, then Clans of Intrigue is indeed a grand place to begin.
Chor Yuen’s mind-blowing Magic Blade is a prime example of something I’ve always appreciated about kungfu films. You see, there are certain things that, while deemed horrible in real life, are perfectly acceptable and even admirable activities for the hero of a kungfu film. I’m not talking about the obvious will-nilly killing of anyone who offends you in some way. No, I’m talking about, first foremost, the stamp of approval kungfu films put on beating up senior citizens. Outside of an Adam Sandler film, no one is going to cheer for a hero who beats grannies and tries to skewer them with elaborate bladed weapons. Even street thugs who don’t give a damn about anything won’t stoop so low as to mess up someone’s grandma. That’s why grandmas can get in between two jackasses waving guns at each other and send them home with tail between legs using nothing but harsh words and an umbrella or oversized pocketbook or maybe an oversized copy of The Bible.
But in kungfu films, old people get beat up all the time, and not just by the villains. Of course, granted the old folks are themselves often the villains of the story, and they’re often imbued with near supernatural fighting powers, but the fact remains that there really aren’t any other genres where taking a swing at your elders is considered the proper thing to do. Even in other genre movies where oldsters are the bad guys, you still rarely see the hero just haul off and slug them in the jaw. Usually the movie serves up some contrived accidental death, and the old ne’r-do-well will be impaled by some trap of their own making. Evil old white guys who run heartless multinational corporations are usually sent off to jail while their underlings get blown up by Steven Segal, but even stops short of kicking 80-year-olds in the groin.
I know you can defend this behavior by pointing out what masters of the martial arts these old people are, but I stick by my claim. Even in other types of movies where the evil old people are competent at something, few and far between are the good guys who try to beat them up.
Kungfu films are also among the only genres where it’s considered heroic to gang up on someone. It’s hardly uncommon to find yourself with a finale where the hero has to team up with several other people to beat the main bad guy. Sometimes it’s because the main bad guy is so good that no one person can beat him. Other times, it seems like they do it just to be dicks. But again, regardless of the power of the villain, you don’t see too many other genres where they approve of the heroes going ten on one against the rakehell. Where’s the honor in that? When you add the fact that the rakehell is often old enough to call Bob Hope “young man,” then you’re really in dubious territory as far as the character of your hero is concerned.
Of course, you can flip it and say these movies teach us a valuable lesson about teamwork, though I’d say that you learn about teamwork by going to an Amish barn-raising, not watching a bunch of kungfu heroes beat up old people.
Not being an expert on social psychology, my theory as to why a kungfu guy can beat up old folks would go thusly: in China, they are famously honorable toward elders. Your grandmother can boss you around long after she dies, and usually you get stuck with three or more generations all living with each other or next door to each other. It stands to reason then, that if you have to devote so much to your elders in real life, you might want to see them get the tar kicked out of them once in a while in the movies. Conversely, in America we don’t give a rat’s ass about our elderly. We move out as soon as we can and ship them off to be confined in a nursing home the first chance we get. And yet, we want to deny our abuse of the elderly by treating them well in the movies. The reason people are afraid of vengeful grannies is because we fear the unknown. We expect old folks to drool and watch Matlock. It scares us when one of them goes off and gives everybody hell. Plus, we never want to directly physically abuse the old people. We prefer to do it through neglect, or by paying professionals to physically abuse them.
I doubt that theory would hold much water if out to the test, but then, what psychological theory does? And none of that changes the fact that kungfu superstar Ti Lung spends a lot of time in Magic Blade trying to beat up someone called Devil Granny. You can’t beat up people named Granny, even if they are evil and cackle a lot and possess amazing kungfu skills. Anyway, on with the show…
Ti Lung plays the poncho-wearing swordsman Fu Hung-hsu, who is challenged one dark night by rival swordsman Yen Nan-fei, played by Lo Lieh in “relatively ugly” mode. The late, great Lo Lieh was one of the true legends of the martial arts movie world, but very few would ever consider calling him handsome. Luckily, this never really mattered in kungfu films, where you could always find a greater proliferation of ugly heroes and leading men than in any other genre. Ugly men beating up old people. Anyway, Lo did have a few stages of ugliness he could employ. In the 1960s when he frequently starred alongside Jimmy Wang Yu in classic swordsman tales, he was “not especially ugly.” His characters were usually cool, and he was at times almost dashing in a weird way. In the 1970s, things really went downhill for him though, and while his fame grew bigger so too did his level of ugliness. Relegated primarily to villainous roles, Lo was usually in “relatively ugly” mode. It was only on special occasions that he’d trot out his “fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” brand of ugly, which relied heavily on things like an excessively oily face, stomach-churning amounts of greasiness in the hair, and lots of close-ups of his mouth (and his mangy little mustache) when he’s doing stuff like eating chicken. Revenge of the Zombies may be his crowning achievement in the uglies, because it combines all the oiliness of the above-mentioned grades of ugly with a vile, flared 1970′s wardrobe.
Being ugly doesn’t stop him from being a fan-favorite, though. Think of him as the Ron Jeremy of kungfu. The fact that he lacks the dashing good looks of Ti Lung makes him someone more real to most of us. We also understand that almost no guy looks good when he’s shot in lots of sweaty close-ups. All of this, of course, ignores the fact that ugly or not, Lo Lieh was one hell of a performer; a great actor and a dazzling martial artist. He could play anything from the hero to the villain (the Shaw Bros’ most dependable baddie next to Wang Lung-wei) and even the comic relief (a la his role in the terrific Buddha’s Palm). He is one of the great stars of kungfu’s gritty Golden Age.
Both he and Ti Lung are in top form here. When the two rivals find themselves under attack from a legion of mysterious goons, they put aside their friendly attempts to kill one another and join forces to see who is behind the would-be assassination. They soon discover that the evil Lord Yu is trying to kill the both of them off. Why? Well, to rule the Martial World of course. Fu and Yen are the only two swordsman who can challenge the evil lord’s attempts to bully everyone. Key to his plans for domination is a sacred weapon called the Peacock Dart, which isn’t so much a dart as it is a massively powerful collection of grenades in the shape of a peacock’s tail fan. Needless to say, Fu is judged trustworthy enough to possess the dart, but the weapon’s owner also sends his daughter Yu-cheng (Ching Li) on the quest to put an end to Lord Yu’s evil ways – a quest that has always been difficult since no one actually knows who Lord Yu is, though they do know he employs some the most lethal assassins the Martial World has ever beheld.
Tops among Yu’s henchmen is the aforementioned Devil Granny (played by Ha Ping). I guess to be fair, I should point out that if old people want to stop getting beat up by kungfu heroes, they should stop taking jobs where their primary goal is to start fights with kungfu heroes. I’m all for seniors in the workplace, but with some jobs, you have to accept a certain degree of being rammed through with a sword without complaining about it. All the henchmen have supernatural powers, and everyone spends a lot of time indulging in the requisite fantastic feats like disappearing into puffs of smoke and jumping through ceilings. If you were looking to get rich in medieval China and didn’t want to resort to becoming a corrupt official, you could always go into roof repair. It seems not a movie goes by where someone doesn’t go flying up through the roof.
Our trio of heroes manage to overcome most of the obstacles thrown in front of them, and those obstacles are plenty creative. During one scene, our trio of heroes find themselves standing amid a bustling market where no one is moving because they’ve all been killed so efficiently that they remain sitting exactly as they were the second before they died. Another encounter finds our heroes in a battle set atop a giant chessboard, with Devil Granny on the sidelines cooking people and cackling incessantly. I guess if I met an old person who indulged in cannibalism and never stopped cackling, maybe I’d take a swing at her too. So Fu is forgiven for beating up old people. Other opponents include a transgender kungfu master, a saucy monk, a duo of lute-playing female assassins, and several dozen nameless lackeys. One conflict after another leads to the big showdown with the enigmatic Lord Yu in his elegant estate. Once again, Fu gets to beat up some old people!
Devil Granny is a wonderful example of just how over-the-top creative Kung Lu’s original stories were. Not every genre of film can give you an elderly character who drinks human blood, boils people alive, and wheels around a food cart armed with explosive Thunder Bullet weapons and filled with armed henchmen waiting to burst out at a moment’s notice. Her catering cart could give Ogami Ito’s baby cart a run for it’s money, that’s for sure. People tend to attribute the whole “quirky assemblage of characters” thing to a post-Tarantino cinema landscape, but kungfu films were filling themselves with deadly killer hermaphrodites (or whatever those guys become when their kungfu makes them change sexes), naked lesbian assassins, and flesh-gobbling grandmas long before it was cool.
Of course, this being a Chor Yuen film based on a Kung Lu novel, nothing and no one is ever exactly as it seems. Fu must contend with the never-ending legion of killers who possess all sorts of crazy supernatural martial arts ability, and at the same time must unravel the complicated plot and figure out who is on his side, and who is just trying to kill him. Ching Li, of course, we know we can always trust, but what about that Lo Lieh?
As with the other films in the Chor Yuen – Lu Kung collection, which includes Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, this film strikes a perfect blend of martial arts madness, fantastic supernatural shenanigans, a dash of eroticism, and a mystery plot so convoluted that it takes multiple viewings to comprehend everything and catch all the little nuances. There are several instances where the plot twist is overly obvious, and Yuan seems aware of this. That doesn’t stop them from making the twist, which toys with disappointing you until he subverts the whole thing and twists the twist. He’s the Chubby Checker of martial arts films. Despite some storyline curveballs, Magic Blade is probably the easiest of Chor Yuen’s films to follow. The plot keeps you on your toes, but it’s fairly straight-forward and concentrates less on the mystery and more on Ti Lung chopping people to bits in the name of righteousness. It’s relative accessibility compared to many of the other Chor Yuen/Kung Lu films makes it a perfect place to start if you’re new to the director.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chor Yuen’s films is his ability to take the same cast, same crew, and come up with something fresh each time. Although they all share certain similarities, each of the director’s films has a unique feel that is generated primarily from the characters. Because Fu is a serious, no-nonsense kind of guy, Magic Blade has a serious, no-nonsense kind of feel despite all the unbelievable things going on. Although he plays essentially the same type of character (the superhuman, can-do-no-wrong swordsman) in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, Ti Lung goes for a more relaxed, playful characterization resulting in a lighter-feeling film (once again, despite all the mayhem). The fact that Chor Yuen never lets action steal the movie from his characters means he can tweak each film and make it different, something Chang Cheh was unable to do thanks to his dedication to the character as a symbol rather than as a human being.
And where his character in subsequent Chor Yuen films is regal in appearance, Ti Lung’s Fu is a more rough and tumble sort of guy. His look, especially the scruff and the poncho, seems derived directly from Clint Eastwood’s appearance in Sergio Leone’s Western epics like The Good the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. Westerns, kungfu films, and Japanese samurai movies all share a common, somewhat tangled bond that keeps them forever linked to one another and allows new fans of each genre to discover the connections without ever growing tired of the game. So Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, inspires Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, which in turn inspires the look of a character in Magic Blade, which coincidentally stars Lo Lieh who would later star alongside Lee Van Cleef in the Western/kungfu cross-over film Stranger and the Gunfighter. All three genres of film deal with the same basic types of characters and even underwent similar changes in theme and appearance (the transformation of the Western from the heroic, polished old days to the gritty, sweaty Leone era, the move of kungfu films from the classical settings and theatrical structure of the early films to the greasy, grimy grittiness of the 1970s, and samurai films from the lofty Kurosawa classics to the gore and blood-soaked Lone Wolf and Cub films). All that Magic Blade is missing is Walter Matheau running up behind people and shooting them in the back with a double barreled shotgun.
As was his trademark, Chor Yuen drapes his film in eye-popping beauty, and I don’t just mean Betty Tien Ni and Ching Li (or Ti Lung, for the ladies…or Lo Lieh for the crazy people). Relying almost exclusively on sets within the Shaw Bros sprawling compound, Chor Yuen is able to control every last detail of each scene, filling them with lavish decorations and splashes of color and augmenting them with inventive camerawork that shows once again a kinship with the outrageous gothic horrors of Italian director Mario Bava. Only one sequence is filmed outdoors, an encounter in a misty forest and hillside. There is an additional scene set in an open-air courtyard, but even that is strictly controlled. The rest is on sets and allows Chor Yuen to show off the highly stylized look.
Matching the director’s vision pace for pace is the superb cast lead by the always-charismatic Ti Lung. For my money, he was the number one martial arts star in the history of the Shaw Bros studio, and nowhere is his prowess both physical and dramatic. The only problem here is the same one he has in Clans of Intrigue – his character is so bad-ass and so skilled that you never doubt the outcome of a conflict. Fu is always one step ahead of the game, sometimes in the most outrageous ways possible (wait until you see what he can do with his sinus cavity). It’s still fun watching him find a solution to every problem, but sometimes you wish he’d be caught off-guard at least once. Even when he’s getting beaten up, it’s because it’s all part of his plan. Or so he says. At least here he does have to fight a lot. In his Chu Liu-Hsiang role, Ti Lung seems almost along for the ride, just to amuse himself and relieve the boredom of living in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by a trio of beautiful women. Fu at least has to work for a living, and pretty much every fight scene involves his character.
Lo Lieh is also in top form as Yen. Lo Lieh is known for playing villainous roles, and the movie exploits his reputation as the heavy to its advantage. He does a decent heroic turn here, but his past typecasting keeps you wondering whether or not you can trust him. Ching Li has a lot less to do here than in other outings with Ti Lung and Chor Yuen, but she’s always a sight for sore eyes. Speaking of which, Chor Yuen does like to pepper his movies with nudity, and we get here an actress who doffs her duds and orders two nubile nymphs to make out with each other in a bid to bring Fu over to the dark side. Personally, if I was Fu I’d be much happier with sort of attack than with Devil Granny trying to cut my throat. Like Fu, I would valiantly endure the onslaught of beautiful maidens performing wanton acts of carnality. Perhaps someday he and Sir Galahad from Monty Python and the Holy Grail can go a-questing together.
The supporting cast is made up of an endless parade of Shaw Bros. stalwarts and recognizable faces. Their job is primarily to laugh and kill, and next time you’re on a job interview and they ask you what your previous job duties entailed, simply say, “I was there to laugh and kill.” Ku Feng, who also appears alongside Ti Lung in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, plays one of the killers, and Fan Mei Sheng, who starred as “the smiling fat guy” in just about every movie ever made, plays the evil yet jolly monk. Devil Granny Ha Ping had a long career playing a surprising variety of characters. Sometimes she’s an aging brothel matron (as in Human Lanterns), and other times she plays a character named auntie, Mrs. someone, or someone’s mother or grandmother. As far as I can tell, she was born playing elderly characters, sort of like Peter Cushing. Very few of her other roles allowed for this much toothless cackling and eating of human flesh, though.
What really makes this film a fan favorite, though, is the amount of swordplay it showcases. While other Chor Yuen films rely heavily on whodunit plotting and feature numerous scenes of people trying to figure stuff out, Magic Blade sports a much faster, blood-soaked pace. The fight scenes come fast and furious but never so endlessly that they become boring. The choreography by Tong Gai is exhilarating and definitely ahead of its time. Most filmmakers and action choreographers wouldn’t learn how to shoot fight scenes this fluid and exciting until well into the 1980s. Although the movie is full of fantastic elements, when the fights get down to the nitty gritty, they’re pretty realistic within the realm of realism that includes the ability for a single guy to ward of dozens of armed attackers. But he doesn’t fly or shoot lasers out of his eyes. If your top demand from a martial arts film is breathtaking action, then Magic Blade has you covered.
Magic Blade was the second pairing of Chor Yuen with the literary source material of Kung Lu (the first was Killer Clans, released the same year). It was the beginning of a long and impressive series of films in which the director relied on the author’s martial arts novels, usually with Ti Lung cast in the lead and Ching Li as the supporting female heroine. Ti Lung would even reprise the role of Fu Hung-hsu in a cameo for Chor Yuen’s Death Duel starring David Chiang’s younger brother, Derek Yee. Chiang and Lung were, of course, practically inseparable as the dynamic duo of director Chang Cheh’s output throughout the 1970s. Chiang himself (along with many of the Shaw Bros. stars) has a particularly insane cameo in the same film.
Although lost for many years as a result of never being released on video, the recently released DVDs from Celestial offer fans of martial arts films a look at the work of the man who was arguably the best martial arts director working at the studio, and one of the best martial arts directors of all time. He took the classical wuxia tradition of directors like King Hu and Chang Cheh in the 1960s and revolutionized it with his eye for artistry, beauty, and frenetically paced action sequences. Without Chor Yuen, there might very well have never been a Hong Kong new wave, and the no-holds-barred swordsman pieces of the 1980s would have looked very different had it not been for Chor Yuen’s pioneering work. As an example of the director and author’s love of complicated plots and nonstop storyline twists, Magic Blade is a fine specimen. As an example of the director’s mastery of staging fast-paced, action-packed swordplay drama, Magic Blade simply cannot be beat.